When considering the contributions of the “porcelain capital” – Jingdezhen, to Chinese ceramics, one cannot ignore the Qinghua porcelain of the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368). There were other areas that produced Qinghua during the Yuan Dynasty, such as Jiangshan in Zhejiang province, and Jianshui and Yuxi and Yunnan. However, none of them came even close to the sheer quality, volume, and aesthetic value of Jingdezhen Qinghua.
Qinghua porcelain was a kind of underglaze coloured porcelain. It relied on natural cobalt minerals as colouring, and imagery and motifs painted on top of the clay body with a Chinese calligraphy brush. Then with the application of the transparent glaze, it was first created in the Gong County, Henan Province in the Tang Dynasty, and continued to be produced throughout the Song Dynasty. By the Yuan Dynasty, the art had attained a level of maturity. Its colours were refined and elegant, capturing the gracefulness of traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings. Starting with the Yuan and continuing through the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Qinghua was consistently the most popular product. Qinghua coloured porcelain had an artistic style that was the most representative of the Chinese. It began in the Yuan Dynasty, as single-coloured Chinese porcelain began to be replaced by porcelain ware with coloured decorations.
There were several reasons for the maturing of Qinghua porcelain during the Yuan Dynasty. Prior to that time, Jingdezhen’s porcelain wares made from porcelain stone were comparatively soft, with maturing temperatures of 1200 C. The newly discovered kaolin was then mixed with porcelain stone as raw material. The compound material raised maturing temperatures to 1300 C, and improved hardness and rigidity in the porcelain body. In addition, the higher aluminium content of kaolin made the porcelain whiter in colour, an improvement in body that laid the foundation for the creation of Qinghua. Jingdezhen produced no coloured porcelain in the Tang and Song Dynasties.
The Qingbai porcelain of the Song Dynasty only added artistic treatment to the original colour of the porcelain. However, with paintings and illustrations as the foremost decorative method, the Qinghua required a hand-painting technique never before used in Jingdezhen. Amidst the turbulence of the war between the Song Chinese and the Yuan Mongolians, a great influx of ceramic artisans from the Cizhou kilns of northern China found their way to Jingdezhen, and these people possessed the necessary painting skills. Soon after, imprinted, painted, and engraved images began to appear on the glistening white surfaces of porcelain ware. Aside from provisions for the daily consumption and use of the Chinese, the need for porcelain to supply the overseas trade also stimulated the porcelain industry in the Yuan Dynasty.
The Yuan Dynasty, ruled by the Mongols, spanned Europe and Asia and built the basis of a broad and extensive market for the commercial and handicraft industries. Especially in the early Yuan Dynasty, protective measures were implemented for export goods. The shipbuilding industry, intimately tied to overseas trading, was already a booming business by the Northern Song Dynasty. There were increased demands from abroad for Chinese porcelain and silk products every year, including throughout Asia, East, North, and West Africa. In fact, since the tenth century, the ceramics industry of West Asia has continued production of underglaze coloured ware, especially Qinghua. However, it is thought that due to the somewhat poorer quality of the raw material used for the body and glaze in the Middle East, it was never able to achieve the quality of Chinese Qinghua porcelain.
The Topkapi palace in Turkey houses over 10000 pieces of Chinese porcelain, forty of which are Qinghua. It is considered to be the largest and finest collection of Yuan Dynasty Qinghua everywhere in the world. The collection included many Yuan Qinghua specimens such as large dishes, bowls, gourd bottles, and octagonal Meiping vases. The illustrations are quite exquisite and give a sense of depth; the colours are compelling and uniformly applied. Overall, the motifs and brightness of the Qinghua colours can be considered the finest in the world, surpassing the quality of Chinese domestic Qinghua by far. These fine pieces are evidence of a prosperous time in the history of Sino-foreign cultural and commercial exchanges. These porcelain wares were not made for use or consumption in China, rather they were custom made for Islamic nations. Through the Silk Road, Chinese porcelain found its way to Central and West Asia, and was favoured by the aristocracy of the Ottoman Empire; it was a contemporary symbol of fashion and luxury. In order to combine their religious beliefs with functional items, West Asian merchants took cobalt colouring and drawing of their desired products to Jingdezhen of China, and placed their orders directly. These porcelain wares were tailored for the customs in Islamic cultures and therefore were rarely seen in China. It is highly probable that West Asian artisans participated in the design and making of Yuan Dynasty Qinghua.
Since Yuan Qinghua was heavily targeted as export, there are many examples of such export ware still preserved in other countries today. There are more than 300 specimens of Yuan Qinghua in existence today, preserved both in China and overseas. The overseas pieces number around 100, housed in Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere; Chinese domestic collections include around 200 pieces, mostly archaeological findings made around China after 1949.
Zhizheng Qinghua came mostly in the form of large vessels, with characteristic forms such as the Meiping vase, goblets, large jars, and large dishes. Its target consumer group was the Islamic countries in West Asia. Its decorative patterns and techniques as well as the shape and form of the vessels were all quite distinctive. The large dishes were usually bevel-lipped, with round or polygonal mouths. In the Qinghua collections of Turkey and Iran, as well as artefacts unearthed from India, large dishes represented a big portion of these collections. These large dishes had round or polygonal shapes. The ones with polygonal mouths were around 45 cm in diameter; the larger round ones can reach 57 cm or more and very few pieces were below 40 cm in diameter. Those with round mouths had diameters usually around 40 cm; few reached 45 cm or more. This type of large dish is the most common type of Yuan Qinghua in existence today. However, within China, only a few exist mostly in museums; most specimens are in West Asian countries. It was said that the large dishes were custom-made for the people in these regions who sat on the floor and ate hand-served foods from the vessel.
There is also a type of large-sized bo, or flat bowl, most often found in West Asia. It has a flared or straight lip design that measures 35-40 cm in diameter. Specimens range in size from 25 cm to 58 cm or more. The large jar is also another type of Qinghua vessel that survives today in plentiful quantities, and is mostly found in Japan. The flat kettle, which has a particular style, is found mostly in the Middle East except for one piece at the former Yuan capital in China. As for Meiping vases, six pieces were discovered together at the Gao’an kiln in Jiangxi. This discovery provided evidence that this was a type of vessel used both domestically and for the export markets. The goblet was first created in the Yuan Dynasty. It was made to serve the nomadic life of the Mongols, thus it was rarely found in other countries and was intended mostly for domestic use. To date, very few typical household Qinghua wares, such as bowls and plates, have been discovered in China. The export of large quantities of Yuan Qinghua played a major role in promoting cultural exchange between China and other countries, among which, Turkey, Iran, and Vietnam produced the best quality imitation ware possessed its respective national styling, and all are testament to the time in history when Chinese and foreign cultures came together.
Yuan Dynasty Qinghua adopted the use of imported cobalt colouring, which had a low concentrations of manganese and high iron content, as well as small traces of sulphur and arsenic, and no traces of uranium and nickel. On the surface, in parts where Qinghua blue was concentrated, there would be black speckles that sank into the body. These iron specks would appear on the glaze and result in an even surface; it was the most distinguishing feature of the Yuan Qinghua and was never to be replicated in later generations. The colours of Yuan Dynasty Qinghua included dark blue, bright blue, and violet-blue, which were pure, intense, and heavy, with a special kind of ink-washed effect, similar to a Chinese ink and wash painting. The decorative images were often of dragons and phoenixes, qilin, peonies, floral scrolls, and scenes of legends. No export Qinghua ware lacked full-bodied decorations as well as paintings and illustrations, which were all initially based on sample drawings provided by the Mongol government’s art offices. The painters and illustrators followed the illustrated guides and paid meticulous attention to the art works, which put many Yuan Qinghua wares in a class of their own.
Yuan Qinghua was intended mainly for the overseas markets. It did not capture the interests of the literati and high officials in China. The Fualing Porcelain Office at Jingdezhen, set up to produce porcelain solely for the Yuan court, favoured the Luanbai, or egg-white porcelain, made by Jingdezhen. This kind of single-colour glazed porcelain continued the traditional high aesthetic ideals of the Chinese literati, praising clean lines and simplicity as the most elegant beauty.
However, changes started to take place during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The culture of the city people awakened as Chinese opera and novels appeared. This changed the aesthetic preference of the Chinese. Qinghua porcelain, with its white backgrounds and blue paintings, was not only a beautiful ornamentation in the home, it could be produced with paintings of figures, landscapes, birds and flowers, even scenes from popular operas and novels. Its ability to express and entertain was something single-coloured porcelain with one layer glaze could not accomplish. As a result, Qinghua porcelain gained domestic recognition in addition to its fame overseas. The Ming rulers established a special Imperial kiln at Jingdezhen to make porcelain specifically for the royal family. Qinghua soon became a mainstream product for all Imperial kilns.